This article about dealing with mould in strata buildings has been provided by Dimitri Livas, Savil Group.
Today I want to talk to you about mould. Not just any old mould. We’re going to look at indoor mould. The mould that lives and grows in our very homes and apartments because it’s a problem that is increasingly coming under the radar of health professionals, architects, designers, builders, building regulators, insurance companies, tenants and property owners, and strata managers alike.
Anyone with an interest in strata property has mould on their radar, and right now when it comes to mould related issues, we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
- What is mould?
- Why should we be worried about it?
- Why is everyone talking about it?
- Most importantly, what can you do to fix this problem?
What is Mould?
Mould is a type of fungus, a plant-like organism of which there are literally thousands of species and it’s found pretty much all over the world. Mould is technically not a plant, but it has very similar requirements for its survival. Like all plants, it needs a food source, water. and oxygen to survive, and like many plants, it prefers a warm environment.
But unlike most plants, moulds don’t photosynthesize. They don’t need sunlight. That’s why you’ll find them in all those dark and hard to reach parts of your home. Most species of mould are pretty harmless. In fact, many are even essential to a healthy environment like those that decompose the organic matter in our composts and create healthy soil. And some are even useful, like the moulds we use to create pharmaceuticals like penicillin. Some even taste good, like those that we use to flavour our blue cheese.
I’m not here to talk about those good moulds. I’m here to talk about the indoor moulds that we find in our homes and our apartments. The ones that make those environments, at the least, pretty ugly, and at the worst, a potential health hazard.
We’re all pretty familiar with the most common types of household mould. We’ve seen them in our bathrooms and showers, around the kitchen sink, creeping up the plasterboards in our walls, sometimes even on our furniture. It’s important to remember that while all moulds have the potential to be a health hazard, generally these types of infestations, even though they may look awful, and in many cases don’t smell a whole lot better, are not our biggest problem and that’s mainly for two reasons:
- they’re generally pretty easy to spot,
- and if you treat the problem early, they’re generally not too difficult to remove.
Why should we be worried about mould in strata buildings?
As I mentioned, all moulds, if left untreated can expose us to potential health risks. The science that surrounds how mould impacts upon human health is actually still unfolding. As more studies are being directed toward these areas, more and more professionals in the medical community are becoming alarmed at just how bad mould can be.
According to a study by the WHO, prolonged exposure to mould has been associated with a host of respiratory conditions such as coughing, tightness of the chest, sneezing, sinus infections and asthma attacks. On top of that, according to other studies, exposure to moulds can lead to irritability, fatigue, muscle aches and tremors, dizziness, even abdominal pain and diarrhoea. There have even been cases of mould toxicity amongst people with weaker immune systems such as the children, the elderly or the sick, that some allege have had fatal outcomes.
Why is everyone talking about it?
But, unfortunately, the problem doesn’t stop there. More recent studies have shown that the adverse effects on our health are not just medical, but psychological as well. The magazine Psychology Today recently published an article that claims that mould exposure can even manifest in conditions that are exclusively psychiatric, such as depression and anxiety, attentional problems, brain fog and even insomnia.
While the medical field to and for over what exactly exposure to mould is doing to our bodies, there’s little controversy over what it is doing to the health of our buildings. When thinking about your house or your apartment, whether you own or rent or whether you manage a strata building, if you’ve got mould you’ve got a problem, and you’ve got a problem you need to act on as soon as possible.
We actually touched on the reason for this a bit earlier. It relates to the specific living conditions that moulds require to survive.
Now the first is that mould doesn’t need sunlight to thrive, so while it’s happy taking up residence in those areas that you commonly find it like the shower and bathroom that we talked about, it’s just as happy to make a home in places that you can’t necessarily see. Anywhere in your residence where there is moisture and poor ventilation can become a site for a potential mould factory.
Think of places like the opposite side of dry walls, or wallpaper or panelling. On the underside of carpets and flooring or behind curtains. Above your ceiling, in your roofing material, around leaking drainage pipes or plumbing that is hidden behind walls, it can even take root in the very timber framework that your residence is built around.
Mould is ubiquitous. But this leads me to the next very real problem that mould presents, and that lies in its food requirements. Now as I mentioned earlier because mould doesn’t use sunlight as a source of energy it has to get all its energy from a food source. That’s right 100% from what it eats. And so, the obvious question is = what does it eat?
What does mould eat to survive?
You’re not going to be happy with the answer, because the answer is your home. That’s right. Mould is literally eating your home. Mould will eat any organic material it can find in your house. It’s not that fussy. Anything porous that has carbon in it. And it particularly loves cellulose, which is commonly found in building materials such as wood and paper. It will even lunch out on the cellulose in the paint.
In terms of its effect on your building’s integrity, and getting the problem fixed, how bad can it get?
According to one leading Australian mould consultancy expert “the actual cleaning of the mould is the smallest problem. If it’s just condensation, it’s cheap. If it sits on top, it’s cheap. For a ceiling, for example, it’ll cost maybe $200,” says Dr Heike Neumeister-Kemp. “But if the mould is growing into the ceiling and it’s porous, then it’s expensive.”
To give you a ball-park figure, the cost of getting an entire house remediated starts at about $15,000 but it can cost much more depending on the size of the home and the type of furnishings you have. As an example, it’s been reported that in one case in Sydney’s Bondi the level of infestation was so bad that the remediation costs totalled a whopping $1.8 million. But it gets worse. In some cases, remediation is not even an option. In the most extreme cases, the mould colony can be so deeply rooted in the infrastructure of the home that there is no other option but full-scale demolition.
So, the question is what can be done to make sure that mould is kept under control and doesn’t get to that sort of extreme level?
What can you do to fix a mould problem in strata buildings?
Like so many problems that the building industry faces, it always falls back to three core foundations that we at Savil Group focus on. They’re our company mantra if you like, and if they’re not taken care of, they’re guaranteed to give you a headache down the road. They are DESIGN, BUILD and MAINTENANCE.
Three core factors. In fact, the World Health Organisation have isolated those same three factors as critical when it comes to the prevention and control of excess moisture and the growth of mould in indoor environments: DESIGN, BUILD and MAINTENANCE.
When we look at mould, we can see that neglecting those three areas has created the perfect storm that we’re in now.
- Let’s look at DESIGN. With the recent apartment boom, what’s happened is that we’ve seen a lot of buildings rushed through in the design process just to keep up with the growing demand. So, that means rushed designs and rushed approvals.
The other problem is a bit ironic. The Australian Building Code, by focusing on making our homes more energy-efficient and fire-proof, has ended up endorsing designs that actually reduce the flow of ventilation in a complex and end up being a moisture trap. And the mould loves it.
- Now the second core area is BUILD, and it suffers from the same rushed through problems that we just mentioned in the design stage. Here we’ve got dodgy operators rushing through jobs to reach a deadline, prefabricated building materials that arrive on site already wet and showing signs of mould, or maybe it’s a matter of not getting the roof on in time before a wet spell or not letting the area dry off before sealing it in.
This results in water in all the wrong places. A problem when it comes to mould. Unfortunately, when it comes to the most common building defects in strata housing, water leaks topped the list with 42% experiencing internal water leaks, 40% showing water ingress from the outside, 25% experiencing guttering problems and 22% suffering from plumbing defects.
When it comes to design and build make sure that you take your time and get the job done right from the very start.
- When it comes to MAINTENANCE of property it gets a little trickier. Whose responsibility is it, the tenant or the owner/strata manager?
In the first place, it’s the tenants right for a residence to be free from any mould infestations or any defects that could lead to an infestation. At the very least, tenants have the right to have that infestation or defect fixed as soon as possible after the beginning of the tenancy.
On the other hand, the tenant has the responsibility to keep the environment as mould free as possible by making sure:
- the house is well ventilated,
- any unforeseen water spills such as an overflowing bath or sink are cleaned up,
- by reporting any water leaks in a timely manner.
And again, the owner or strata manager has a duty to respond to those reports as quickly as possible.
It goes both ways. But if the mould shows up later in a tenant’s occupancy and no-one is exactly sure who is responsible for the water leak, this can end up in an ugly dispute. This will result in at the very least poor owner/ tenant relations, or at worst lengthy and costly legal disputes for all parties.
If you think about a strata title property the responsibility becomes a little harder to determine and it depends largely on where the mould’s located and what the cause is. If it’s caused by a plumbing leak, it will depend on whether the plumbing is on common property or if the plumbing is shared with other owners (in both cases, the body corporate is responsible), but if it’s part of a unit’s internal plumbing then it’s the owner’s problem.
Generally, when it comes to the common property boundaries of a strata complex, these are usually defined by the upper floor surface (not including the carpet), the undersurface of the ceiling, and all external or boundary walls, including the doors and windows. If the cause of the mould is located outside any of these boundaries (including inside the boundary walls), then the body corporate is responsible for repairs and compensation. But If the cause of the mould, such as internal plumbing leaks or poor ventilation, is within these boundaries, then the lot owner is responsible for the damage and clean-up costs.
As you can see, mould is a big problem if you don’t take it seriously and if you don’t act on it. Like many building issues, the key is to be proactive rather than reactive. When it comes to mould the best management approach is to try and minimise the conditions in which mould grows in the first place, and that’s simple when you think about it – the way to control mould growth is to keep control of moisture.
For a strata manager or owner, that means making sure there are no existing mould issues on the property, keeping tenants well informed of their responsibilities in maintenance, and most importantly, if mould gets out of hand, getting a remediation team in as quickly as possible to assess the issue and come up with the right strategy to fix the problem.
Experts in this field agree, choosing the right remediation contractor could be the single most important decision that an owner or manager makes – one that could mean the difference between a successful clean-up or a negative outcome.
Have a question about mould in strata buildings or something to add to the article? Leave a comment below.
- NAT: What role does strata play in addressing any faults in your apartment?
- NSW: What’s the Importance of Good Ventilation in Your Building? [Case Study]
This post appears in Strata News #297
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is provided for your personal information only. It is not meant to be legal or professional advice nor should it be used as a substitute for such advice. You should seek legal advice for your specific circumstances before relying on any information herein.